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George Weigel thinks there is a ‘hollowness’ at the heart of post-Blair Britain

He doesn’t think much of our bishops, either: but what about the US?

By on Thursday, 9 December 2010

In his autobiography Tony Blair writes about the funeral of Diana but does not think of it in Christian terms (Photo: PA)

In his autobiography Tony Blair writes about the funeral of Diana but does not think of it in Christian terms (Photo: PA)

George Weigel, in an article in First Things, dealing at length with Tony Bair’s autobiography and then with the papal visit to England and Scotland, has a great deal to say that many of us would agree with. He links these two apparently disparate phenomena in an interesting way, not one which does much for our national self-esteem.  He doesn’t seem to see much hope for our future, or for that of our Church: and that’s where I think he’s just wrong.
 
“Blair’s recounting of the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales” he writes, “brings into clearest focus the hollowness at the heart of the Britain he helped midwife into being… her state funeral, the prime minister decided, ‘had to be dignified; it had to be different; it had to be Diana’. What it didn’t have to be, at least by Blair’s account, was Christian, despite its being held in Westminster Abbey, ‘hard by the shrine of St Edward the Confessor and the sacring place of the kings of England’, as Evelyn Waugh once wrote. Somehow, according to Blair, ‘Elton John singing Candle in the Wind and doing it rather brilliantly’ was ‘in keeping with Westminster Abbey’. Well, yes, if Westminster Abbey is simply a stage, a shrine to the Real Absence on which any romance may be produced.”
 
“That this woman’s death,” comments Weigel, “however tragic, sent an entire country into a nervous breakdown says something deeply disturbing about the culture of contemporary Britain. That Tony Blair perceived this national crack-up as ‘a tide that had to be channelled’ rather than a nonsense that had to be confronted suggests that he is not quite the Churchillian figure some of his American admirers would like him to be.”
 
And that is the nation, argues Weigel, that in his gentle way Pope Benedict did confront. It was a confrontation that many of us had feared. For, as Weigel memorably puts it,  “into the hollow soul of Britain during the Blair years roared any number of demons, such as those that could, with no fear of public retribution, describe the 83-year-old Pope Benedict as a former Nazi who ought to be arrested, on arrival in the United Kingdom, as the central figure in an international criminal conspiracy of child rapists and their abettors”.
 
Yes, but, but, but. If we are all so totally hollow, how come the British public generally (for, as we all noted with enormous relief, it wasn’t just Catholics) ignored the demons and responded so overwhelmingly positively to the Pope when they saw what he was actually like? That positive response was also an indication, just as powerful as the general response to the death of Diana, of the national soul: maybe it was even a sign that we had all moved on.
 
Weigel doesn’t seem to think that there’s much of a chance that Catholics in this country will respond in any lasting way to the challenge of the papal visit. He thinks little of our hierarchy, and quotes someone he describes as a “lucid observer” (I wonder who?) saying: “The British hierarchy didn’t do much wrong on this visit, but they did contain their enthusiasm until the secular press declared it a success, and then they joined in.”
 
Well, it may be true that “into the hollow soul of Britain during the Blair years roared any number of demons”, Dawkins and Tatchell being the chief archdemoniacs: but demons can be driven out: who listens to the “atheist coalition” now? And though I have great respect for Weigel, I wonder if he really thinks that this alleged hollowness is basically a British phenomenon to do with Blair (though undoubtedly “the people’s Tony” epitomised it to perfection here) or has to do more with the aggressive secularism that Pope Benedict has identified throughout western culture. What about the US, George? A certain hollowness there, too?
 
The Pope, I believe, released something in English, Welsh and Scottish Catholics that had been waiting to come out for years. I think that even lukewarm bishops (and none of them, have you noticed, have been anything less than publicly enthusiastic about the Pope since his visit, though quite a few were less than encouraging about it before it happened) will not be able to talk us down from that new confidence in ourselves and our religion. We just need a few good episcopal appointments from Cardinal Bertone to send a sign from Rome confirming that we are no longer on our own: and our churches, North and South of the border, will go from strength to strength. Don’t write us off yet, George Weigel: you just may have got us wrong.

  • Wcallaghan

    I agree with you Dr Oddie, thought Mr Weigel was unusually negative in his opinion of British Catholics, I think many, particularly young Catholics, did and will continue to respond to the Pope and the Church with enthusiasm, by the way we're still patiently waiting for a new Archbishop here in Cardiff so keep us in your prayers

  • B Taylor

    I was raised an atheist yet the Pope's visit to Britain, was a turning point for me, one that persuaded me to pursue my Catholic faith.

  • GFFM

    Weigel is usually dead on, but I am not sure why he is underscoring the weakness of the British hierarchy when he knows the US has the same problem. One could argue the US episcopal weakness is worse. He and other Catholic observers in the US see a shift because of the election of Archbishop Dolan to the presidency of the USCCB. They've called this a “tectonic shift.” I don't agree. I hope he's right, but I just do not see it, especially with Dolan's pretty weak record in Milwaukee dealing with Rembert Weakland's nefarious legacy. At any one time in Catholic affairs in the US there are a handful of bishops who show unwavering leadership and extremely pressing subjects such as embryonic stem cell research, religious freedom, the life issues, and authentic marriage. By no means is there a plethora of episcopal voices defending Church teaching in the public square. In fact, most serious Catholics in the US are fed up with the lack of voice in the public square on the part of the bishops. Also, American bishops are notoriously inaccessible to the people; this needs to change. It's extremely difficult for the average person to see his bishop, much less to tell him what he thinks.

  • Den flyvende hollender

    “We just need a few good episcopal appointments from Cardinal Bertone”

    It's not Cardinal Bertone who makes episcopal appointments. It's the Pope, assisted since this summer by the Québecois Cardinal Ouellet. Something which, I think, augurs well for future British episcopal appointments.

  • GabrielAustin

    For an American, such as myself, George is a bit of an old-fashioned conservative – the suburban golf club type. I know little of the episcopal situation in Britain, but that in the U.S. appears almost beyond rescue. Bishops here seem to have emulated British bishops in fleeing from their flocks and hiding behind chancery walls and the diocesan bureaucracies. The which has made them powerless; and that to the extent that one millionaire nun could spit in their faces over the health insurance bill. The prideful Jesuit fathers take pleasure in doing likewise.

    When one reads that the U.S. bishops have taken a stand on some matter or other, what is meant is that some bureaucrat in the USCCB has issued a statement about a subject. One has but to read Fr. Ricciotti's book on the early martyrs to note the difference between real bishops – leaders and protectors of their flocks – and the office holders of today.

  • NYer

    I am also an American, and I think that Weigel can be very cavalier in his harsh assessments of people and situations. He is often critical of Pope Benedict (as on EWTN last week).
    Seeds were planted in the English soil in September and I am sure that good things will sprout from them!
    Bless you B. Taylor!

  • paulsays

    Before you do look carefully at the Church's positions and make up your own mind on their morality. I would expect you are not homophobic, but you will be joining a homophobic organisation to some degree. As brought up a Catholic myself it is the Church I will remain in, however I say look before you leap and don't believe every official position

  • willigis

    yes lets be hopeful. seeds are planted. at least a few bishop seats to be filled.

    also being hopeful one could assume that weigel is such a good catholic that he wishes to be proven wrong sooner than later.

    about the US: i think that weigel would admit similar problems within the US, a dozen bishops with limited zeal, etc. but keep in mind that the US is unavoidably more diverse in most ways than the UK, so there's a bishop for every style. could be that the average british catholic parish is a bit further back on the post Vat.II swing cycle that the average american one. so probably just a matter of patience.

    let me suggest that weigel is actually trying to encourage the new seeds.

    and let's pray that he doesn't really have time for golf.

  • M Wenske

    Thanks for this article.

    George Weigel is part of the New Evangelization, and I read whatever I can by him.

  • M Wenske

    Homophobic?

    Do you know the Church's teaching on homosexuality? It says we are called to love homosexuals equally as other men and women. Please read the Cathechism of the Catholic Church; it is very clear on this issue.

  • M Wenske

    He wasn't critical of the pope; he's just not a YES man or a NO man.

    He states the truth.

  • M Wenske

    It's these old-fashioned conservative types that are fostering vocations, Gabriel.

    The 60s 70s type liberal is dead and dying.

    It's the truth that attracts, not psuedo truth akin to ear-tickling.